In America, no one can hear you scream
Guest blogger Parker Lancaster marks the 4th of July by looking at ‘Democracy in America’, the classic 1835 work from Alexis de Tocqueville, and at democracy in America today.
“Vote: n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.”
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
As all small-d democrats the world over know, democracy is a government of choices. And not easy choices, like Paul or John, Coke or Pepsi, In n Out or Shake Shack, Mom or Dad (where my children of divorce at, y’all?). Taking the fate of one’s country and community into one’s hands is no easy task and no small responsibility. For an informed citizen at the ballot box, choices are often difficult and sometimes morally compromising. It’s legitimately hard work to find reliable sources of information and study every measure and proposition. It’s exhausting trying to find CVs, platforms, endorsements, and voting and campaign contribution records for every candidate for President, Senate, House, Governor, State Assembly, Deputy County Commissioner, Comptroller, District Attorney, Assistant District Attorney, Assistant to the Assistant District Attorney, Assistant to the Regional Manager…you get the picture.
Participating in a democracy is inconvenient (mostly by design) and more often than not, the payoff for investing dozens of hours of research into your ballot is to have most or all your people and issues lose and lose hard (while you’re at it, world, why not send a cloud over to rain only on me?). But this is, as they say, decidedly a First World problem. Regardless of how often I lose, and even if I lose every political battle for the rest of my life, I’m still glad to have a voice and a choice. Every fight has winners, losers, and plenty of lip-licking spectators who had nothing better to do than watch more courageous people get hurt. If monarchies, aristocracies, and castes are passive systems for their subjects, with virtually every major life decision already made for everyone at birth, then democracy is an active one, full of risk, adventure, and free will, and it requires everyone to put a little skin in the game.
Democracy is a power that we, the people, have deliberately and painstakingly entrusted to ourselves after millennia of inferior, immoral, irrational, and unjust political systems the world over. But like all great powers, it can be a double-edged sword. A responsible citizenry can be a sheepdog, standing tall, selfless, and vigilant to protect the herd, with a glossy coat of well-groomed hair gloriously whipping in the wind from atop its high rocky sunset perch for an epic helicopter shot. Or it can be a rabid, cross-eyed, cackling chimpanzee with a huge scar across its face, an AK-47 in one hand, a Molotov cocktail in the other, and a big fat stogie in its mouth. In America, we’ve chosen the latter path. It’s over folks. It’s all over. We’ve jumped the shark. We’ve gone full chimp. We’ve gone fishing. We’ve gone coocoo for Cocoa Puffs. This is America now. Don’t pray. It won’t work. Either God is dead or he hates us with the hot hot heat of a trillion quasars.
As befitting our self-destructive human nature, there comes a time in the history of most democratic nations wherein the skies turn red and reality is subsumed by an unending waking nightmare that curdles the blood, quickens the beatings of the heart, disquiets and distempers the brain, and makes men’s minds unsound. Owing to an avalanche of fatal institutional mistakes, flaws, and corruption far too long to list here, and some stretching back even to the founding of the nation, the American people recently found themselves with just two “viable” and “practical” choices, both of which happened to be malodorous, revolting, hissing sewer rats.
But not all sewer rats are created equal. Some are just your run-of-the-mill soul-sold hellions, who think and act in accordance with what one expects from this contemptible species. Others are another breed altogether: the rare Sumatran giant sewer rat. The kind of rat you might lift the toilet lid one day to find winking at you and doing casual, lackadaisical backstrokes in the bowl. And flush him though you may, flush him though you might, over and over and over again, like the Terminator, he will be back. Like whatever the thing from It Follows is, he will always be back, each time more sinister and resolute than before. Like Poe’s maddening raven, he’ll be scratching, tapping away from inside the bowl at all hours of the dark of night. Like Bob Wiley, as many times as you think he’s gone, he’s not gone. He’s never gone, and each time he returns, his wide, sickly, ghastly grin is somehow even wider, more sickly, more ghastly than before. By some dark elvish magic uttered from a cursed ancient vellum grimoire written in the blood of the innocent, the abominable creature is still alive. It’s alive…it’s alive……it’s alive! It’s going to haunt your dreams for the rest of your life, with its horrifying hairpiece and that nasty smile with the pursed-lips kissy face. The prophecies foretell that only when the Blood Moon rises and the planets are aligned in a pentagram, such a creature is summoned forth to bubble up from the rancid, fetid tar pits of hell to be elected Prime Minister of Mixed Metaphors, and more importantly for our purposes, President of the United States. And worst of all, it will never, ever stop tweeting.
What to do when faith in one’s country is shaken to the core? We live under the tiny iron fist of a bonafide fascist, a semi-literate, breathtakingly incompetent, bedentured McDictator, spray-tanned daily well past the point of lightheadedness. This lecherous old misogynist and racist demagogue openly calls for violence against the press, even in the midst of a nationwide rash of record-breaking mass shootings and massacres (including against the press). He uses racial slurs against political opponents and puts immigrant children by the thousands in borderline concentration camps. He blows through civilian death records and drone strike body counts all over the Middle East with ease. He despises and mocks fallen and captive American soldiers, ethnic and religious minorities, women, the poor, the disabled, checks and balances, judges, due process, and the general principle of the rule of law that he fetishized so intensely for his credulous voters on the campaign trail. His enabling administration (a rogues’ gallery of corrupt sycophantic bootlickers, sociopaths, lobbyists, opportunists, and unlucky children and in-laws) is just as abhorrent and scaly as the id incarnate whom they serve. Our government is literally one shocking scandal after another on a daily basis, in a constant state of a constitutional crisis and damage control.
Sadly, this is a problem I don’t think we will be able to blow out of the airlock (with or without the benefit of a power loader), or cast out of this mortal plane of existence with a reading from the Necronomicon or a hosing down with positively-charged ghost goo fished out of the gutters of New York City. For those who care for the welfare of their country, a political crisis is a personal crisis as well. And so it is that I find myself in dire, urgent need of a vacation (or at least a daycation, or, at the very very least, a staycation), and a thorough physical and mental delousing. After a shower to soothe my chemically burned and inflamed skin, a good bender, and a quality ugly-cry sesh, I sober myself and turn to my trustiest and most reliable old pals for comfort: books. These days, they make for better companions than my fellow countrymen. To get some perspective on America’s current predicament, and to quiet my doubts about the democratic experiment, there is no title more apropos than Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
Tocqueville’s masterpiece, long and detailed as it is, stands in stark contrast to the political analyses of today. Surely owing to social and technological limitations of the time, and the adolescent state of political science as an academic discipline, the book is relatively light on hard facts and figures (by way of example, the first straw poll ever conducted in America was done only 11 years prior to the first volume’s publication). Rather, Tocqueville went the long way around, geographically and otherwise, and accomplished much of his research through good old-fashioned conversation to get a sense of the American character and identity. Months and months and months of it, with Americans from most, if not all, walks of life. Statistics, polls, census data, meta-data, pie charts, and so on, are certainly essential to modern political science, but Tocqueville’s book stands out for how glaringly human it is. The humanity of the book extends to its author as well, particularly in the chapters that reveal his own biases and cultural blinders on the issues of women, slavery, free blacks, and Native Americans. As comprehensive boots-on-the-ground documentation of American life, its like was not to be seen again in America until FDR’s establishment of the ambitious Works Progress Administration, exactly 100 years after the publication of Democracy in America. It’s a complex work, a literary gumbo of psychology, sociology, history, ethnography, politics, economics, religion, and more. Many of his minute observations on human folly and hypocrisy within a particular political system ring true to this day, and clear as a bell.
Tocqueville’s conclusion that democracy, and likely the republican kind, was soon to be the way of the world, proved to be true. That republican democracy is to be America’s future is still true today. We’re the world’s largest Energizer bunny. We just keep going and going and going. Maybe that won’t always be the case if we don’t reverse our empirical urges, but it seems as though democracy is here to stay. Sure, there are some holdouts where they still haven’t heard of that whole “Enlightenment” thingymabopper. It’s telling that even the most transparent psychopathic dynastic dictatorship in the world, North Korea, feels the need to hold sham elections and even go so far as to call itself a “Democratic People’s Republic” (a remarkable 0 for 3). Though democracy is and will always be under constant threat of coups, corporate takeovers, privatization of public institutions, hysterical religious fundamentalism, and more, it remains the gold standard of governmental frameworks. These days, it is simply a given that people everywhere expect to have a say in their own affairs and sovereignty.
There’s a popular delusion on the Right, and even on the Left, called “American exceptionalism.” This is the notion that God specifically favors America above all nations in all matters (sorry, all you good people of Fort Frances, Ontario, you were born only a stone’s throw away from eternal blessings). I reject this claptrap. If America does have a destiny, then the clouds on the horizon are dark and heavy indeed. Our “destiny” is less of a shining city on a hill, and more like a well-used copy of a volume in R.L. Stine’s late-90’s “Give Yourself Goosebumps” spinoff series (Reader Beware….You Choose the Scare!!!). That is to say, our national destiny would smell moldy, be smeared in old pizza grease, and have about 24 possible endings, mostly involving getting turned into werewolves, giant insects, or being subjected to wedgies and wet willies for all eternity. You guys believe any fantasy you’d like. I’ll be over here with my books and I’ll make my own luck, thanks.
Image: Detail from ‘The Avenue in the Rain’ by Childe Hassam (1917)